Djimo Kouyate, who moved from his native Senegal to Washington four years ago, couldn't believe the audience reaction when his modern African music ensemble Mamaya performed at Dance Place recently.
"We intended to play for only 40 minutes but ended up playing for an hour and a half," he says. "Everybody, everybody began to dance. For them, it was a great disco. It was beautiful to see everyone moving to the music. I didn't know we were going to communicate that quickly with people who had never heard our music before."
Steve Bloom, who along with his wife, Carla Perlo, founded D.C. Wheel Productions, which runs Dance Place, was even more impressed. "It was the finale of an evening of music I produced with my group, Steve Bloom and the Crux," he says. "People went wild. We had every intention of making it a dance event, but all of a sudden it became a giant breakdown. People were flying everywhere." (Mamaya performs again at Dance Place tomorrow night at 8 and 10:30, and in a free concert at Annapolis City Dock on July 17 from 7 to 9 p.m.)
For Kouyate, the nine-member ensemble Mamaya is the latest project in a life dedicated to the preservation and promotion of African culture. Kouyate is a griot -- "a traditional musician and historian to African society," as he puts it -- and a master of the ancient 21-string instrument known as the kora.
While the kora, congas and marimba (a modern substitute for the balaphon) link Mamaya's music to the African past, as do many of the group's songs, Kouyate is quick to point out that the addition of guitars and borrowed elements of jazz improvisation make it thoroughly modern as well, and surprisingly accessible to American ears.
A founding member of the National Ballet of Senegal, Kouyate spent several years touring the world as one of the premier exponents of African music and dance traditions. He decided to make his home here in 1981, after working 25 years for the Senegal minister of culture, and founded the Memory of African Culture dance company shortly after arriving.
He says his involvement with Memory of African Culture stemmed from a desire to see "African civilization -- not just dance but music and art and all African contributions -- better represented in America." He hopes to achieve some of the same goals through his work with Mamaya. That is, if people stop dancing long enough.
"Mamaya is beautiful dance music," Kouyate says. "African jazz music. It's the modern high-life music of West Africa. In Africa when they play Mamaya, all the beautiful women come out to dance, and the griots, the musicians, spend all year making sure the event is something very special."
The idea of combining traditional African music with jazz improvisation is particularly appealing to Kouyate. He grew up listening to jazz and has played in a variety of jazz settings around the world. "As a matter of fact," he says, "when Duke Ellington was in Senegal, he was interested in me coming here to work for him. But I was too young at the time to really understand what that invitation might mean for me."
The biggest challenge Kouyate faced in forming Mamaya was teaching local musicians how to play African music. Much of it has been passed down from one generation of griots to the next. None of it has been written down.
"I knew it would take a lot of time," Kouyate says, "even working with these musicians who are not only good but very excited about playing African music. A lot of people, especially in America, think African music is all drums. It isn't that at all. It is string music, too.
"It's very complex. If I were to play for you a kind of ethnic African music, for instance, you'd think it was jazz. Each kind of music has a definite background in the African past and a very different style and sound."
Although several members of Mamaya have studied a variety of ethnic music, Bloom, who plays congas in the group, says making Mamaya work as a unit was anything but easy. For one thing, he says, the way in which different melodic and rhythmic elements of Kouyate's music interlock with or offset each other, deliberately setting up a kind of tension, is "almost diabolical."
"In many cases," Bloom says, "Djimo will take the rhythm from one culture and the melody from another. Remember, he's a griot and that was his job -- showing up at a different village each day and playing for a wedding or a coronation or whatever. And each time he stops, he's playing the specific kind of music the villagers enjoy. That's what I think Mamaya means to me more than anything else -- a feeling. If the Mamaya is upon you, then you feel as if it's your wedding day. In fact, when Djimo is playing, I get the feeling even in rehearsal."
For Bloom, tomorrow night's concert holds a special significance. The building that houses Dance Place has been sold, and extensive renovations are planned. Bloom is confident that the performance series will continue no matter what happens, "but we hope to stay at the same location. If we do it's going to be more expensive, so we know we're going to have to raise more money." He said tomorrow's concert is one of several Mamaya performances that will directly benefit Dance Place.